Why not to go to Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
You couldn’t go to Sri Lanka without seeing the incredible wildlife and as was my dream, an elephant or a leopard in the wild. You’d be right and you should definitely put it on your list of things to do in Sri Lanka and plan on pencilling it in for a half day or even a full day safari. Unfortunately if I was going again I wouldn’t go to Yala National Park. It is Sri Lanka’s second biggest park and the most visited, situated on the south coast it is perfect for tourists flocking to the idyllic beaches. It may be convenient but the whole operation is so commercialised it is a wonder how the park haven’t tried to change it. Jeeps and more jeeps is all you can see for your trip. There is hardly a minute where there isn’t another SUV in view. This commercialisation and the fact that you are looking at the other tourists all the time on your visit ruin any romantic notions you could have of the wildlife. All I wanted to see were elephants in the wild and by the time I did get to see one lonely soul at the end I was fed up with the place. My advice would be to try to visit a different park.
How to get to Yala National Park
Almost every tour starts off in Tissa. Or Tissamaharama to give it its full title, 21km to the west of the park. You can arrive there at any time of the day or night and there will be a tour available to the park the next morning. There are plenty of tour offices in the town but the easiest way to organise a tour is through your accommodation.
Why not to go to Yala National Park – Commercialisation
We were picked up by the jeep at around 4.30am and whisked at lightning speed to the park. I noticed on the way that there were a lot of jeeps/SUV’s like ours but it’s a big park so I didn’t pay any heed. It turns out that Yala NP gates only open at 6am so along with the convoy of jeeps we were stuck waiting for 30min until they opened. I counted 43 jeeps lined up all carrying 8-12 people and that was just the one’s I could see.
I was on a safari in Yala National Park from 6am to 11.30am and for almost the entire 5.5hrs we were passing other jeeps on the narrow dirt tracks. I didn’t mind at the beginning as I thought they would all spread out but that didn’t really happen. It really took away from an experience in the ‘wild’. There was no deafening silence as we gazed into the bush in search of an exotic animal. Whenever we did stop engines could be heard. We did see a few monitor lizards, warthogs, deer, waterbuffalo ,mongoose, caymen and the lovely bee-eater birds but I wouldn’t blame the animals from staying away from the roads because of the noise. I fully understand that we could see herds of elephants and leopards the next time as safaris are random but animals avoid disturbance. There is no restriction on the number of vehicles each day so this trend will continue as long as tourists keep coming.
Warning: All the roads inside the park are dirt tracks and extremely bumpy. The vehicles are built for the conditions but if you are prone to even a little bit of motion sickness this is not a trip for you. After 5 hours of it I felt a little nauseous and a 13year old boy that was with us felt sick for the last hour (and wouldn’t stop reminding us of it!). I definitely wouldn’t have wanted another few hours on the safari and a full day would have been too much for me.
Hint: Although the day heats up eventually bring a jumper or jacket with you for the early morning drive. All the vehicles are open with no windows and at 5am it can be chilly especially as you are driving at 50mph to the park gate.
Because of the narrow roads almost every time you encountered another jeep you had to really slow down and pull in. When this was happening every few minutes it started to get annoying. As all 50, 80, 100? jeeps are going around in sort of circles in the vicinity of the entrance you end up seeing some of the same faces over and over which go from enthusiastic to content to fed up as the day progresses.
Why not to go to Yala National Park – Prices
Prices vary of course but I paid 12,000rupees (US$80) for a double room (for 2 people) and 2 x half day tour of Yala including a box lunch. This was in a jeep that seats 8-10 and the park entrance fee. The half day tour starts in Tissa at about 4.30am and ends there at approximately midday.
The Yala NP entrance fee is 3,000ruppees per adult. Make sure to clarify this is included or excluded from the quoted price if on a tour.
For a private jeep it costs approximately 4,500rupees for half a day. Entrance fees not included.
Prices can vary wildly so make sure to shop around.
Why not to go to Yala National Park – When to go
You really can go any time of the year. Yala is closed in September so best to avoid that. The water levels are low from Feb to July so animals tend to congregate around watering holes and are easier to spot.